What began as one Jordan Middle School seventh-grader's research project on the questionable history of the school's namesake, David Starr Jordan, has now given way to a commitment to review not only that school's name but those of all schools in the Palo Alto school district.
The school board expressed support Tuesday night for the creation of a district committee that would take a closer look at the history of the people whose names the district's 17 schools bear.
The issue came to the board through Lars Johnsson, the father of the Jordan student, who started in November a petition to rename the school. Johnsson was shocked to read in his son's project last year that Jordan was an "early, lifelong" leader in the eugenics movement, an early 20th-century science that promoted the reproduction of genetic traits of particular races over others.
Johnsson's petition has since collected more than 300 signatures from individuals and also received official endorsements from several parent groups in the school district, including Parent Advocates for Student Success (PASS), which represents parents of minority students; the Palo Alto chapter of the Community Advisory Committee (CAC), which represents families of students with special needs; and the Palo Alto Council of PTAs (PTAC).
Christina Schmidt, chair of the Palo Alto CAC, wrote in a Nov. 20 letter of support that "any promotion of Mr. Jordan's philosophy represents a direct threat to all children born with disabilities and their families, and disfavored minority groups."
Johnsson's son, Kobi, now an eighth-grader at Jordan, told the board Tuesday that while Jordan may have had many admirable qualities and accomplishments he was the founding president of Stanford University, a pacifist, known ichthyologist (studying the branch of biology dedicated to fish) and educator his active and lifelong role in the eugenics movement makes him an unsuitable role model for a 21st-century public school.
Jordan penned one of the earliest books published in America on eugenics called, "The Blood of the Nation: A Study in the Decay of Races by the Survival of the Unfit;" chaired the eugenics section of the American Breeders Association, the first organization in the United States devoted entirely to eugenics; and promoted sterilization as a method of "race betterment," among other efforts that made it clear he was a leader rather than simply a participant in the eugenics movement, Johnsson told the board on Tuesday.
He also provided examples of Jordan's writing, in which he described Irish, Greek, South Italian and Polish people as "controlled by emotions, animal instincts, subliminal tendencies and the like, instead of brains and will" and Mexicans as "ignorant, superstitious, ill-nurtured, with little self-control and no conception of industry or thrift, lacking, indeed, most of our Anglo-Saxon virtues."
Kobi and other community members who spoke in support of renaming not only Jordan but two other schools named after eugenics proponents, Lewis Terman and Ellwood Cubberley, noted that they themselves would have been sterilized under this movement.
"I believe, bottom line, if we're going to put someone's name on a school, it has to be someone who believed in the value and the potential and the worth of every single student in this school district," said Nancy Krop, the parent of a student at Terman Middle School. "Being the parent of a middle schooler, I've been having discussions with him and his friends about this topic. (They say,) 'How can you say, on the one hand, you believe in my potential, but yet we know that the names on two schools thought I'm unfit?' Because my son and his friends all fall in that unfit category for various reasons, my son and each one of his friends would have been sterilized under both Mr. Jordan and Mr. Terman's beliefs."
Board President Heidi Emberling pointed out that another Palo Alto Unified school namesake, Juana Briones, would have also been considered an "undesirable" by eugenicists' standards.
"Names matter," Emberling added.
This is not the first time a renaming proposal has been presented to the board. In 2008, Suz Antink, a Palo Alto High School math teacher, sent the board and then-superintendent Kevin Skelly a detailed letter documenting research she had conducted on school namesakes, primarily Jordan, Terman and Cubberley. (This letter is included in the board packet for this week's meeting.) Antink requested that Jordan, Terman and possibly Cubberley Community Center be given new names to better reflect district values.
"In this place in time, the connections of these people's mixed reputations with our mission and our philosophy seems contradictory," Antink wrote. "I recognize that they were doing what they believed was best for society at the time; their detractors, who challenged their assumptions were in the minority of the power base at the time so that other perspectives created little competition with their views and the execution of their ideas.
"Still, I believe that our current struggle, to encourage and support students successfully reaching their ambitions is somewhat hampered by the legacy left by their national design and its implementation."
PASS co-chair Sara Woodham, also Johnsson's wife, told the board Tuesday that now that Jordan's questionable history is more publicly known, it is faced with making a decision that will send a critical message to its students and families, particularly those of color.
"The genie is out of the bottle," Woodham said. "We are about to send a message one way or the other and we're on the threshold of either sending a message that one, we are OK with elevating and in effect rehabilitating the stature of David Starr Jordan. We are either going to send that message or we are going to take seriously our mission statement that says we provide an environment for all our students to thrive, and we are valuing creating a model for our students that we want them to take forward in the global community."
Each board member was supportive of a citizen advisory committee charged with reviewing all school names in the district. Board member Camille Townsend said she hopes longtime community members will be sought out to participate.
Board Vice President Terry Godfrey emphasized that student voice should also be front and center in the committee's process. It could also serve as a potential vehicle for student projects and research, she noted, such as for Paly's Social Justice Pathway students.
The Jordan social studies department also expressed interest to the school's PTA in developing a lesson or unit in conjunction with the renaming proposal, Johnsson said.
"I think its our responsibility to set an example for our students," board member Melissa Baten Caswell said. "Sometimes we don't know pieces of information, but when we find it out, it's our responsibility to act accordingly."
Johnsson noted in an October presentation to the district's Minority Achievement and Talent Development committee that if Palo Alto Unified decided to move forward with a name change, it would not be alone.
In recent years, schools across the country have changed their names, including Nathan Bedford Forrest High in Florida, which became Westside High in 2014 after a petition that garnered more than 140,000 signatures opposing the name of a Confederate Army general and the first "Grand Wizard" of the Klu Klux Klan.
Palo Alto is also not the only district home to a school named after Jordan; there are also two high schools in Los Angeles and Long Beach and a middle school in Burbank.
The Stanford campus also has a Jordan Hall, which houses the Department of Psychology.
Under Palo Alto Unified board policy, a citizen advisory committee can be appointed to review name suggestions and submit recommendations for the board's consideration.
At the board's next meeting on Jan. 26, Superintendent Max McGee said he will bring a draft charge for this committee and, ideally, an application process for members.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct information from Lars Johnsson that his son wrote a book report on David Starr Jordan. It was a research project for which students were asked to research a passion of theirs and then present it in multiple genres.